You can thank Jane Russell for “Sucker Punch,” every Roger Corman jigglefest, the Catwoman outfit Halle Berry was poured into and just about any other body-baring costume that a Hollywood actress has shimmied in over the past 70 years. The buxom pinup beauty who helped push the envelope in onscreen sensuality died on Monday at the age of 89 at her home in Santa Maria, California.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Russell had suffered from respiratory problems and died after a short illness. The actress made her biggest splash in her first role in 1943’s “The Outlaw,” a Howard Hughes-produced film that played up her sexuality in a marketing campaign that focused on her voluptuous figure.
In fact, the iconic publicity still of Russell posing in a low-cut top while leaning back on a bale of hay — her left arm cocked on her hip and her pouty lips and ample bosom prominent — created a sensation and challenged the strict morality rules of Hollywood’s production code.
Born Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell on June 21, 1921, in Bemidji, Minnesota, she moved to Southern California with her family as an infant and started working as a part-time model after graduating from high school. She was discovered by one of Hughes’ casting agents amid a search for a beauty with a curvy figure to play Billy the Kid’s love interest Rio McDonald in “The Outlaw.”
The Times noted that Russell got the part after one audition, and Hughes took such an interest in her that he fired director Howard Hawks and got personally involved in finding creative ways to emphasize her assets. How involved? Hughes had his engineers design a custom “cantilever” bra with no seams that would expose more of her breasts than typical bras. Russell refused to wear the contraption, however.
Hughes’ efforts shocked Joe Breen, who was in charge of enforcing the strict production code (the precursor to the modern-day ratings code), which forbade such overt portrayals of erotic situations and material. He said at the time that he’d never seen “anything quite so unacceptable as the shots of the breasts of the character of Rio,” which he said were “shockingly emphasized.”
Despite Breen’s order to delete dozens of shots of Russell’s cleavage, Hughes refused, playing up the controversy in the ad campaign with the haystack poster and taglines such as “How Would You Like to Tussle with Russell?” After being re-released in 1946 without code approval, the movie made millions, marking the high point in Russell’s career. It also pushed the envelope in movies and opened the floodgates for using sex to sell new films, a tactic the paper noted is practically a given in contemporary Hollywood.
Russell starred in 18 more movies in the 1940s and ’50s, few of which were notable, save for her role as Marilyn Monroe’s sidekick in the 1953 legendary farce “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” But her image lived on as one of the pinup girls most beloved by soldiers during World War II, despite her deeply religious born-again Christian beliefs and a conservative background that had her regretting her early career choices later in life.
She never became a leading lady, and her onscreen career ended in 1970 with the little seen “Darker Than Amber,” but Russell went on to play in nightclubs and 1940s-style revues well into her 80s.